Category Archives: Higher ed

Good enough teaching, and trust

I spent most of Wednesday at the 17th annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, put on by my new employer, Grand Valley State University. It was a full day of good ideas and good people, and I really enjoyed engaging with both. One experience from today  has really stuck with me, and it happened during the opening session as Kathleen Bailey, professor in the Criminal Justice department, was speaking about the changing student demographic we are encountering (not just at GVSU but everywhere in higher ed).

Kathleen comes from a fairly unique position as not only a professor of CJ and assistant director of freshman orientation but also as a former parole officer for teenagers. In her talk, she drew some parallels between parenting, being a parole officer, and working with college students. I was pretty uncomfortable with that three-way comparison at first, but the more she spoke, the more I had to admit the similarities were pretty striking. She spoke about three conditions that troubled teens — and indeed all children — need to have if they are to thrive:

  1. Kids need to have a good “holding environment” — that is, they need to be in a place where they have a feeling of safety and attachment, and to some extent basic respect as a human being.
  2. Having found a good holding environment, kids then need to have provision of contrasting or contradicting experiences — what Kathleen called “differentiation” — to develop a defined sense of self. For example, a kid who has violent behavioral tendencies needs to be given experiences where he cares about others and acts in appropriate ways, to be shown that he can be kind and gentle and does not have to always follow his tendencies.
  3. Finally, kids need to have an abiding presence of someone else — a person who “stays put” with them and gives them a safe place to integrate all the personal changes they experience through differentiation.

This process is all about building the substrate of a relationship with a kid upon which a mature, productive person can be built. The building process has to be carried out by the kid — the kid with violent tendencies has to choose to act differently, and nobody else can to that for him — but the change that takes place cannot happen in the absence of that “abiding presence” that creates the environment.

Probably by now the comparison with parenting and teaching should be clear. These, too, are about transforming the lives of young people through the presence and enabling work of another person. Kathleen referenced the notion of good-enough parenting (espoused by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) as a model for this kind of relationship. It’s not about being perfect or doing the right things all the time, but rather about “attuning” to the child who is in your care — that is, to attempt to respond to the needs of the child/kid/student, especially emotional needs. The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued. (That’s paraphrased from the article linked just above.)

We faculty tend to focus on covering our content and drilling students to ensure they are mastering a skill set. These things aren’t unimportant. But for students, particularly new students entering into college or university, there is a strong emotional component that intermediates the learning process. They tend to be unsure of themselves; they are struggling to make social connections in a new place; they struggle with homesickness; they are inexperienced at managing freedom and end up making poor personal choices. On top of all this, if we faculty are doing our jobs, we’re asking them to stick their necks out and work harder than they ever have, and wrestle with ideas that are just beyond their grasp. So of course there is a lot of emotional stress at play. It behooves us to build this substrate of a relationship where students have those three things they need to thrive.

I am certainly not good at this sort of thing. I am an introvert and a geek, and emotional stuff like this is not my forte. But I take away two profound things from Kathleen’s talk. First, my personal preferences are irrelevant. If students are going to learn in my classes, they must have a sense that they have from me the basic respect afforded to all people, especially those embarking on a journey through a university education. Second, I can take comfort that all I have to be is “good enough”. From the article I linked earlier:

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need “perfect” parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children.

That ought to be something all parents and teachers keep in mind every day. (Parole officers too, I suppose.

I suppose all this boils down to the concept of trust. Students need to know that they can trust me. I need to invest trust in my students (even though they, as imperfect people and works-in-progress, will break that trust). On a bigger level, my colleagues and I have to have a mutual sense of trust to work together. My Dean needs to trust me, and I him. In fact the whole fabric of higher education is predicated on trust. No one can learn or teach in a college where the network of trust is not iron-clad. If trust is missing from a college, what you have is a dying college.

On the other hand, where trust flourishes, learning and teaching flourish. That is the kind of environment I want for myself and my students, and so that’s where my work begins.

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Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Vocation

Technology making a distinction but not a difference?

This article is the second one that I’ve done for Education Debate at Online Schools. It first appeared there on Tuesday this week, and now that it’s fermented a little I’m crossposting it here.

The University of South Florida‘s mathematics department has begun a pilot project to redesign its lower-level mathematics courses, like College Algebra, around a large-scale infusion of technology. This “new way of teaching college math” (to use the article’s language) involves clickers, lecture capture, software-based practice tools, and online homework systems. It’s an ambitious attempt to “teach [students] how to teach themselves”, in the words of professor and project participant Fran Hopf.

It’s a pilot project, so it remains to be seen if this approach makes a difference in improving the pass rates for students in lower-level math courses like College Algebra, which have been at around 60 percent. It’s a good idea. But there’s something unsettling about the description of the algebra class from the article:

Hopf stands in front of an auditorium full of students. Several straggle in 10 to 15 minutes late.

She asks a question involving an equation with x’s, h’s and k’s.

Silence. A few murmurs. After a while, a small voice answers from the back.

“What was that?” Hopf asks. “I think I heard the answer.”

Every now and then, Hopf asks the students to answer with their “clickers,” devices they can use to log responses to multiple-choice questions. A bar graph projected onto a screen at the front of the room shows most students are keeping up, though not all.

[…]

As Hopf walks up and down the aisles, she jots equations on a hand-held digital pad that projects whatever she writes on the screen. It allows her to keep an eye on students and talk to them face-to-face throughout the lesson.

Students start drifting out of the 75-minute class about 15 minutes before it ends. But afterward, Hopf is exuberant that a few students were bold enough to raise their hands and call out answers.

To be fair: This is a very tough audience, and the profs involved have their work cut out for them. The USF faculty are trying with the best of intentions to teach students something that almost assuredly none of them really want to learn, and this is exceedingly hard and often unrewarding work. I used to teach remedial algebra (well short of “college algebra”) at a two-year institution, and I know what this is like. I also know that the technology being employed here can, if used properly, make a real difference.

But if there’s one main criticism to make here, it’s that underneath the technology, what I’m seeing — at least in the snapshot in the article — is a class that is really not that different than that of ten or twenty years ago. Sure, there’s technology present, but all it seems to be doing is supporting the kinds of pedagogy that were already being employed before the technology, and yielded 60% pass rates. The professor is using handheld sketching devices — to write on the board, in a 250-student, 75-minute long lecture. The professor is using clickers to get student responses — but also still casting questions out to the crowd and receiving the de rigeur painful silence following the questions, and the clickers are not being used in support of learner-centered pedagogies like peer instruction. The students have the lectures on video — but they also still have to attend the lectures, and class time is still significantly instructor-centered. (Although apparently there’s no penalty for arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early. That behavior in particular should tell USF something about what really needs to change here.)

What USF seems not to have fully apprehended is that something about their remedial math system is fundamentally broken, and technology is neither the culprit nor the panacea. Moving from an instructor-centered model of learning without technology to an instructor-centered model of learning with technology is not going to solve this problem. USF should instead be using this technology to create disruptive change in how it delivers these courses by refocusing to a student-centered model of learning. There are baby steps here — the inclusion of self-paced lab activities is promising — but having 75-minute lectures (on college algebra, no less) with 225 students signals a reluctance to change that USF’s students cannot afford to keep.

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Filed under Clickers, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Math, Peer instruction, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Computers, the Internet, and the Human Touch

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This article first appeared earlier this week on the group blog Education Debate at OnlineSchools.org. I’m one of the guest bloggers over there now and will be contributing articles 1–2 times a month. I’ll be cross-posting those articles a couple of days after they appear. You’d enjoy going to Education Debate for a lively and diverse group of bloggers covering all kinds of educational issues.

It used to be that in order to educate more than a handful of people at the same time, schools had to herd them into large lecture halls and utilize the skills of lecturers to transmit information to them. Education and school became synonymous in this way. Lectures, syllabi, assessments, and other instruments of education were the tightly-held property of the universities.

But that’s changing. Thanks to advancements in media and internet technology over the past decade, it is simpler than ever today to package and publish the raw informational content of a course to the internet, making the Web in effect a lecture hall for the world. We now have projects such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, and countless initiatives for online education at US colleges and universities providing high-quality materials online, for free, to whomever wants them. It brings up a sometimes-disturbing question among educators: If students can get all this stuff online for free, what are classrooms and instructors for?

Tech author Randall Stross attempts to examine this question in his New York Times article “Online Courses, Still Lacking that Third Dimension”. In the article, Stross mentions “hybrid” courses — courses with both online and in-person components — but focuses mainly on self-contained courses done entirely online with no live human interaction. He correctly points out that learning is an inherently human activity, and technologically-enhanced coursework is successful insofar as it retains that “human touch”.

However, Stross casts the relationship between computer-enabled courses and traditional courses as a kind of zero-sum game, wherein an increased computer presence results in a decreased human presence. He refers to universities “adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.” But it’s not the technology itself that makes instructors obsolete; it’s the adoption of practices of using that technology that does. There are numerous instances of traditional college courses using computing and internet tools to affect positive change in the learning culture of the institution. There are also plenty of cases, as Stross points out, where technology has replaced human instructors. The difference is an administrative one, not a technological one.

Nor is the supposed obsolescence of the instructor all technology’s fault. If universities and individual professors continue to hold on to a conception of “teaching” that equates to “mass communication” — using the classroom only to lecture and transmit information and nothing else — then both university and instructor are obsolete already, no technology necessary. They are obsolete because the college graduate of the 21st century does not need more information in his or her head to solve the problems that will press upon them in the next five or ten years. Instead, they need creativity, problem-solving experience, and high-order cognitive processing skills. A college experience based on sitting through lectures and working homework does not deliver on this point. The college classroom cannot, any longer, be about lecturing if it is to remain relevant.

And notice that an entirely self-contained online course can be as “traditional” as the driest traditional lecture course attended in person if it’s only a YouTube playlist of lectures. What matters regarding the effectiveness of a course isn’t the technology that is or is not being used. Instead it’s the assumptions about teaching and learning held by the colleges and instructors that matter, and their choices in translating those assumptions to an actual class that students pay for.

What we should be doing instead of choosing sides between computers and humans is finding ways to leverage the power of computers and the internet to enhance the human element in learning. There are several places where this is already happening:

  • Livemocha is a website that combines quality multimedia content with social networking to help people learn languages. Users can watch and listen to language content that would normally find its place in a classroom lecture and then interact with native speakers from around the world to get feedback on their performance.
  • Socrait, a system proposed by Maria Andersen, would provide personalized Socratic questions keyed to specific content areas by way of a “Learn This” button appended to existing web content, much like the “Like This” button for sharing content on Facebook. Clicking the button would bring the user to an interface to help the user learn the content, and the system contains social components such as identifying friends who also chose to learn the topic.
  • I would offer my own experiments with the inverted classroom model of instruction as an imperfect but promising example as well. Research suggests this model can provide in significant gains in student learning versus the traditional approach to teaching by simply switching the contexts of lecture and activity, with lecture being delivered via video podcasts accessed outside of class and class time spent on problem-based learning activities in teams.

Rather than view college course structure as a pie divided into a computer piece and a human piece, and fret about the human piece becoming too small, let’s examine ways to use computers to enhance human learning. If we keep thinking of computers as a threat rather than an aid to human interaction, computer-assisted instruction will continue to lack the human touch, the human touch will continue to lack the power and resources of computers and the internet, and student learning will suffer. But if we get creative, the college learning experience could be in for a renaissance.

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Eliminating STEM majors in the name of efficiency?

Missouri State University

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Thanks for bearing with me during a little hiatus on this blog. I’ll be back into semiregular posting habits starting now.

Problem: There’s not enough qualified candidates with degrees in the STEM disciplines for the STEM jobs that are coming on the horizon, particularly those that require US citizenship such as government jobs. So you would think that the solution would be to try to drum up more students to go into, and stay in, those disciplines. But Missouri State University has chosen to take a different track: Start eliminating STEM majors because they are “low producing programs”. From the article:

Gov. Jay Nixon directed the agency to review academic programs that do not appear to meet the Coordinating Board for Higher Education’s productivity criteria.

“Low-producing programs” are defined by CBHE policy as those producing fewer than 10 graduates per year at the baccalaureate level, five majors per year at the master’s degree level, and three majors per year at the doctoral degree level, calculated over a three-year average.

As a result of the program review, which began in September 2010, colleges and universities will terminate a total of 119 programs, or 20 percent of all programs identified for review. Institutions will move 24 programs to inactive status, and 175 programs were flagged for follow-up review in three years.

The four-year institutions will end 73 degree programs, and two-year institutions will end 46 programs. The majors will be phased out over time so students currently enrolled in the degree programs can graduate.

Among the majors being eliminated at MSU are Emerging Technologies Management, Engineering Physics, Technology Education, and the master’s program in Engineering Management. This is all being done in the name of “efficiency”.

I think you could make an argument that while these degree programs are not “core” STEM subjects like Chemistry or Engineering, they are still valuable as second-level STEM subjects that can, if cultivated, produce trained professionals who either produce the STEM practitioners of the future (in the case of Technology Education) or create work environments in which STEM practitioners can do their best work (in the case of the management majors). Therefore these programs have value for the STEM community, and they could be especially good landing spots for university students who like science and technology but also like the business side of things and would rather not double-major. The elimination of the Technology Education major is particularly painful, because this is an area of extreme need in American high schools today.

So if you’ve got these majors that are of clear value to society, and that society suffers from not enough people going into these disciplines, exactly how are we helping ourselves by eliminating the programs? Unless there is some plan in place to grow these programs in a different and more efficient format (say, as an academic minor or certification program) then wouldn’t it make more sense to try to ramp up recruitment efforts first?

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Another thought from Papert

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Like I said yesterday, I’m reading through Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas right now. It is full of potent ideas about education that are reverberating in my brain as I read it. Here’s another quote from the chapter titled “Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning”:

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are “smart people” and “dumb people.” The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are “good at math” and people who “can’t do math.” Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of “dumb people” or, more often, to a group of people “dumb at x” (where, as we have pointed, x often equals mathematics). Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated and reinforced throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.

Haven’t all of us who teach seen this among the people in our classes? The culture in which our students grow up unnaturally, and incorrectly, breaks people into “good at math” or “bad at math”, and students who don’t have consistent, lifelong success will put themselves in the second camp, never to break out unless some “exceptional event” takes place. Surely each person has real limitations — I, for example, will never be on the roster of an NFL team, no matter how much I believe in myself — but when you see what students are capable of doing when put into a rich intellectual environment that provides them with challenges and support to meet them, you can’t help but wonder how many of those “limitations” are self-inflicted and therefore illusory.

It seems to me that we teachers are in the business of crafting and delivering “exceptional events” in Papert’s sense.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Conrad Wolfram’s vision for mathematics education

A partial answer to the questions I brought up in the last post about what authentic mathematics consists of, and how we get students to learn it genuinely, might be found in this TED talk by Conrad Wolfram called “Teaching kids real math with computers”. It’s 17 minutes long, but take some time to watch the whole thing:

Profound stuff. Are we looking at the future of mathematics education in utero here?

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Filed under Early education, Education, High school, Higher ed, Math, Teaching, Technology, Wolfram|Alpha

Misunderstanding mathematics

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Robert Lewis, a professor at Fordham University, has published this essay entitled “Mathematics: The Most Misunderstood Subject”. The source of the general public’s misunderstandings of math, he writes, is:

…the notion that mathematics is about formulas and cranking out computations. It is the unconsciously held delusion that mathematics is a set of rules and formulas that have been worked out by God knows who for God knows why, and the student’s duty is to memorize all this stuff. Such students seem to feel that sometime in the future their boss will walk into the office and demand “Quick, what’s the quadratic formula?” Or, “Hurry, I need to know the derivative of 3x^2 – 6x +1.” There are no such employers.

Prof. Lewis goes on to describe some ways in which this central misconception is worked out in our schools and in everyday thinking. The analogy between mathematics instruction and building construction, in which he compares current high school mathematics instruction to a building project where the scaffolding is constructed and then abandoned because we think the job is done, is pretty compelling. The whole essay is well worth reading.

I do think that it’s a bit too easy to lay the blame for the current state of mathematics instruction at the feet of American high schools, as Lewis does multiple times. Even if high schools do have flawed models of math instruction, certainly they are not alone in this. How many universities, even elite institutions like Fordham, have math classes or even entire curricula predicated on teaching math as rote mechanics? And what about the elementary math curricula? Pointing the finger at high schools is the natural thing to do for college professors, because we are getting students fresh from that venue and can see the flaws in their understanding, but let us not develop tunnel vision and think that fixing the high schools fixes everything. Laying blame on the right party is not what solves the problem.

Lewis brings up the point that we should be aiming for “genuine understanding of authentic mathematics” to students and not something superficial, and on that I think most people can agree. But what is this “authentic mathematics”, and how are we supposed to know if somebody “genuinely understands” it? What does it look like? Can it be systematized into a curriculum? Or does genuine understanding of mathematics — of anything — resist classification and institutionalization? Without a further discussion on the basic terms, I’m afraid arguments like Lewis’, no matter how important and well-constructed, are stuck in neutral.

Again coming back to higher education’s role in all this, we profs have work to do as well. If you asked most college professors questions like What is authentic mathematics?, the responses would probably come out as a laundry list of courses that students should pass. Authentic mathematics consists of three semesters of calculus, linear algebra, geometry, etc. And the proposed solution for getting students to genuinely understand mathematics would be to prescribe a series of courses to pass. There is a fundamentally mechanical way of conceiving of university-level mathematics education in which a lot of us in higher ed are stuck. Until we open ourselves up to serious thinking about how students learn (not just how we should teach) and ideas for creative change in curricula and instruction that conform to how students learn, the prospects for students don’t look much different than they looked 15 years ago.

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